A Mental Model to Leverage Information Overload as Creative Fuel for Problem Solving

Surfing the internet feels like drinking from a fire hose of information.

I find myself overwhelmed with the YouTube Videos, Amazon Book recommendations, Online Courses, Blog posts etc that are vying for my attention.

And if I don’t consume them all, I fear I’ll miss out on some critical piece of information which will affect my life in some way.

What makes it worse is the flow of information is exponentially increasing!

I found some relief when I came across Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. The essence is summarized in this formula:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

It made sense. By shutting off distractions and interruptions, I’ll be able to focus on key projects that create value in the world.

I got inspired to shut off all social media. No more Facebook. No Whatsapp. No Twitter. Just essential Email & Online research.

But later I realized by cutting myself from different sources of information I was taking a step back. I was missing out on opportunities and ideas that otherwise I would never get.

The Internet is this massive network that gives you real-time access to streams of information.

Twitter. Facebook. WhatsApp. Medium. Quora. They bring to your awareness perspectives that you may have never thought of. It creates connections in your mind that sparks innovative ideas, which otherwise would never occur.

Instead of limiting your sources of information, here’s a new model to leverage the abundance of information to enhance your creative output.

1. Filter the information through a Lens of Your Most Important Questions

In the near future, you’ll be able to ask any question to Siri / Google Assistant and it’ll instantly speak out the answer.

The world is abundant in answers. Answers have become cheap. Every video, blog post, online course is someone’s answer to a question they had.

So instead of blindly consuming someone else’s answers, arrive at your answers.

And that begins by asking good questions.
 
What is a good question? Kevin Kelly founder of Wired Magazine explains in his book, The Inevitable:

“A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy — ‘What would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?’ That question launched the theory of relativity, E=MC2, and the atomic age’.
A good question question is not concerned with a correct answer.
A good question cannot be answered immediately.
A good question challenges existing answers.
A good question creates new territory of thinking.
A good question is one that generates many other good questions.
A good question is may be the last job a machine will learn to do.
A good question is what humans are for.”

Reflect on the topics that currently interest you the most, and then make a list of your “Most Important Questions”. These are a list of questions based on your problems.

Here are some of my most important questions:

  • How do I live a life that’s on Purpose?
  • How do I Organize the systems in my business so that the emergent properties are purpose, happiness & growth?
  • How can I organize my day so that I’m automatically productive?
  • How do I set up my work-space so that creativity emerges naturally?
  • How can cryptocurrency replace money?

The idea is not to find the smartest questions, but the questions that solve problems that are most critical to you.

Surf the internet through the lens of your most important questions. These questions will organize your attention. You will discover your own answers to your most important question. And new insights will emerge.

The problem is not information overload, but that you’re not putting up a useful lens to filters to give you the information that you need.

Once you have these filters setup, you can generate novel insights by taking the step below.

2. Generate Novel Insights by exploring diverse & rich sources of information

Your insights and learning will be limited if you’re spending time with material that you’re already familiar about.

Instead, expand your intake of information by including more diverse and rich sources.

If all knowledge were to put on a Matrix, it would look like this:

Your greatest opportunities lie in the fourth quadrant: Things you don’t know, that you don’t know.

This is the area where we’re most fearful to take action. It’s the fear of the unknown ’cause we don’t know what lies in there. Explore novel experiences in the physical, personal & relationships. Try stuff that you haven’t tried before.

When I look back on my life, my biggest wins happened when I took the step into the unknown.

Reflect in your own life. You’ll find that to be true. Here are some questions you can ask to discover new experiences:

  • What is a new experience you could have that would be very different from your normal experience?
  • What are you fearful of doing?
  • What sources of information do you disagree with?

By adding new experiences and taking in information from more diverse sources, and push it through your lens of Important questions it will invalidate your assumptions, create new connections in your mind and novel insights emerge.

Here’s how you can integrate these insights into your work.

3. Complete (Small) Projects to integrate the learning

“We Only Know What We Make.” 
Giambattista Vico, Philosopher

Learning is not memorizing information. Real learning happens when you take action. Taking action gives you feedback from real life experience, which gives you new data to reflect on that feeds onto your work.

To integrate the insights into the way you think, you need to move from consuming to actually creating.

When you take action, you receive feedback from the real world. You learn from direct experience.

Here’s what you can do.

From the most important questions that you have, pick a project that seeks to answer one of these questions.

It doesn’t have to be a large project, even something small will do. For example, if you’re interested in learning more about Cryptocurrencies & BitCoins, here are some simple projects you could explore:

  • Explain to a family member what is Bitcoin
  • Invest a small amount in Bitcoin
  • Write a blog post
  • Do a tweet storm

Any of the above will put up a lens up and it’ll filter out 99% of all the information and tell you exactly what you need to know that is relevant to your needs now.

A useful project to solve a particular need is the most focused lens through which you look at the world.

Take this very blog post as an example. By taking up a project to publish this post, I clarified in my mind a new mental model for dealing with information overload and also learned how to create simple animated gifs.

Embrace the Abundance of Information

The best about the Internet is that there’s so much information. The Worst thing about the Internet is that there’s so much information.

After I changed my Mental Model on information I’m no longer overwhelmed with the abundance of it. I no longer feel guilty consuming interesting and exciting ideas that are out there.

I seek it.

I take advantage of the rich & diverse sources information which feeds into the work I create.

We’re living in a world where we’re creating information at an exponential rate. It sounds stressful if you think you need to consume it all.

Think of Information as Food.

Imagine you’re at a 5 Star buffet, with loads of options. It’s stressful if you think you have to consume it all. But it’s liberating if you know what you want to eat so that you can find the right balance of taste and nutrients to create your meal.

Similarly being exposed to an abundance of information is liberating if you know what you want because with access to more information increases the chances of finding solutions to your problems.

The inspiration for this post came after taking Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. You’ll find some cutting-edge practices on how you can use tools like Evernote to ask important questions, generate insights & bring them into your work.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s leading publication for entrepreneurs and startups.

You can subscribe to get the top stories here.